CHAMONIX, France — The growing ranks of climate-change skeptics should be sure to visit the ice cave of La Mer de Glace, France’s largest glacier. Visitors must walk down some 350 stairs to reach it.
On the way, they pass two fascinating signs. One, 230 steps above the glacier, marks the ice field’s height in 1990. Another, 129 steps above the glacier, notes how high it reached in 2000. The massive expanse of ice is shrinking at a rate of 3 or 4 meters a year. That’s roughly 10 or 12 feet.
Think of a skyscraper that loses one story each year. No matter how tall it is, it won’t last all that long.
If this doesn’t convince skeptics, they should take a visit to Glacier National Park in Montana. Its name suggests plenty of ice here. But good luck in finding any. The glaciers have just about disappeared.
Today was one of those picture perfect summer days that you’ll see a handful of times each year — cloudless from dawn to dusk, light breeze, temperatures in the high 70s. But that didn’t please the two British rock climbers we met on the gondola up to Le Brevent, a spectacular vista above a sheer rock face only the brave would be foolhardy enough to scale. That included the two Brits. But the poor lads really didn’t want to be mucking around with their ropes. They were reduced to such a climb because the beautiful weather has left the massive snowfields on and around Mont Blanc too soft for climbing.
“We’re waiting for the weather to change,” one of them told us. “What we’d really like is a brisk wind and perhaps a little snow.”
And here I thought it was a lovely day.
My favorite acquaintance on this trip is Mignonne from Naples, Fla. It seems appropriate that we met her atop Aiguille du Midi, which, at 12,602 feet, is the highest funicular (gondola) in the world. It unloads, appropriately, directly beneath Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe.
After arriving at the top, Kathy and I were standing quite literally breathless after being whisked 9,282 feet skyward in 20 minutes, when Mignonne volunteered to take a few pictures of us. She didn’t have all that much time, she explained, because that afternoon she had an appointment to go hang-gliding.
Mignonne told us that on her 60th birthday she and her daughter went sky-diving in Las Vegas. Her daughter, unfortunately, got sick to her stomach. But Mignonne left her tucked in at the hotel and went up for a second jump. Now she was off after a new thrill.
“My bucket list is getting shorter,” she said.
And here I thought I’d accomplished something by standing on what felt like the top of the world with a view of the alps in three countries.
Speaking of hang-gliding, I’m thinking of adding it to my bucket list. (I did at least manage to descent several thousand feet rapidly in an open chairlift today, which felt a bit like flying through the air, the entire Mont Blanc range of high alps before us.)
Earlier in the day, we watched at 6,6000 feet atop th Planpraz gondola, where so many hang-gliders take off that they reminded me of the annual Monarch butterfly convention in Pacific Grove, Calif. As I tried to count all of those soaring beside the cliffs at one time, I lost my bearings after a couple of dozen.
Some gliders flew solo. Others, presumably guides taking up paid clients,were strapped in double. Once strapped into the big cushions that serve as seat and backpack, all it seemed to take to get aloft was a rather clumsy run off the hillside near the lift, where a crowd gathered to watch these gigantic, colorful creatures.
In theory, anyway, I think I could do this. Maybe I’ll higher Mignonne as my guide.
Hitchhiking seems as commonplace in the French alps as it did in the ’60s in the States. It’s refreshing, really. When Kathy and I worked in the Colorado Rockies in college, we would regularly hitchhike around the parks. But I haven’t seen any hitchhikers in the U.S. for a long time whom I’d consider picking up.